When four scary looking teenagers stepped into Blayne Greiner's parking lot, he decided to do something about it.
by Gail Welborn
Teens On The Edge
It was the screaming that made youth pastor Blayne Greiner rush from inside Crossroads Foursquare Church in Snohomish, Washington, to the parking lot on a hot Wednesday evening in 1999. There, 16-year-old A.J. was desperately trying to stop his friend Cody's hand from bleeding by keeping his arm raised in the air. It wasn't working.
The teenagers had been at the church earlier that evening. For several weeks Goth youth, including A.J., had been using the parking lot as a safe gathering place. Goths are recognizable by their extreme dress-usually all black, sometimes with capes or trench coats, black eye makeup, body piercings, chains, tattoos, and spiked and/or multi-colored hair. Many Goths are big fans of shock-rocker band Marilyn Manson, especially emulating the lead singer's anti-establishment attitudes.
"Can you help?" A.J. screamed at Greiner. As other Goths surrounded them, the 25-year veteran youth pastor wrapped a piece of his shirt around Cody's hand to slow the bleeding. Inside the church, someone called 911.
As they waited for the paramedics to arrive, the story unfolded. Cody had persuaded A.J. to follow him to a construction site to set off some blasting caps. One went off in his hand, blowing a finger and the tip of another finger off. When he realized Cody was going into shock, A.J. knew exactly who to turn to.
Weeks earlier Greiner had been meeting with his church youth group when four Goth teenagers showed up in the parking lot and "began weaving and chanting curses and spells." The youth pastor prayed with his church teenagers, then walked outside.
"How can we help you?" Greiner asked, shaking each teenager's hand. "Can I get you coffee or a soda?"
Greiner's response startled the four young men. "What do you want to touch us for?" one bluntly asked. They were used to being angrily kicked off someone's property, often with the police arriving a few minutes later. Although suspicious, they were drawn to Greiner's friendliness. Before they left, he invited them back.
To his surprise, they came. Each week, more and more Goths showed up. Greiner, couldn't understand it.
But to some Youth Unlimited staff, it made perfect sense. God was answering prayer.
Four years earlier, Lee English who worked with Greiner at Youth Unlimited, had walked the parking lot, praying "Lord, fill it with your children." English admits that he didn't know who specifically would come, only that God was listening. Youth Unlimited co-worker Sara Schelbrack and others joined the prayer vigil. But they decided not to tell Greiner.
When the number of Goths arriving at the church continued to increase, English mentioned his prayer walk. Were these the children God wanted them to reach? From convenience stores and other favorite hangouts, the Goths came until a crowd close to a hundred was gathering weekly in the far corner of the 300-car parking lot. Greiner decided it was time for deliberate outreach.
English and Schelbrack made a commitment with Greiner to meet with the Goths each week, demonstrating God's unconditional love.
"Blayne, Sara, and I were Jesus' hands, feet, and eyes to these kids," English says. "We didn't judge them. We accepted them."
Knowing that the teenagers' attention span was short, the leaders kept their gospel presentations brief, often no more than five minutes. Greiner would focus on a topic common to any teacher - like parents, school, a peer's suicide - always tying the lesson into a spiritual truth about God. Then Greiner, English and Schelbrack would interact with smaller groups of teenagers to get to know them personally. As the ministry in the parking lot thrived, a different scenario was building inside the church.
Not in our back lot
Weeks passed. One evening Greiner noticed a car driven by a church member with their teenager pull into the parking lot, glance at the crowd of Goths, and then quickly drive away. Complaints started piling up alleging the outsiders were smoking, drinking, and selling drugs in the parking lot. When Greiner asked one churchgoer if they or their teenager had seen anything, the reply tipped the youth pastor off to a growing paranoia.
"Well, no, but?look at these kids! Weird colored hair, things hanging from their noses, eyebrows, and lips, even tattoos all over them. What about my kids? What if they start doing this?"
Trying to reassure the concerned parent, Greiner explained that nothing illegal or harmful was taking place in the parking lot. The Goths, thankful for a safe place to meet, were policing themselves. No drugs, no fighting, no destruction of property. Greiner also tried to remind concerned parents that their children were running into Goth-looking teenagers in school everyday. Wasn't it better to first befriend them in a godly environment as a step to reaching them for Christ?
Greiner's hope was for the church youth to reach out to the Goth youth by example. "Yes, there's a risk," he said, "but the Bible is filled with risk takers."
Church members weren't the only people concerned. Neighbors near the church kept calling the police. As one explained, "You hear it everyday in the news - robbery, people hurt. I see these strange looking kids next door ? need I say more?" Something was going to have to change.
Greiner was optimistic when some curious churchgoers volunteered to help with the Wednesday night parking lot ministry. But after several weeks, they decided to "bombard the gates of heaven with prayer instead," Greiner said, "something they felt more comfortable with."
When the church youth group learned two "parking lot kids" lived under a bridge in Snohomish County, they took up a collection to buy sleeping bags, tents, new backpacks, and toiletries. The two boys, speechless when the gifts were presented to them, began to cry.
Still, the pressure was mounting for Greiner. Some church leaders said, "The [parking lot kids] don't represent us. It's nice in theory, but we have a million-dollar mortgage." Members of the congregation were leaving. In April 2000, the church asked Greiner to disband the parking lot ministry.
Hanging in there for A.J.
Blayne Greiner and A.J.
Greiner struggled with the ultimatum. He had come to love these strange-looking teenagers, knowing that no one else dared approach them with the gospel. He was heartened by changes in the church youth's attitudes. "They gained an awareness that these weird kids were like them in many ways. They weren't scary, they just looked different."
It may have also given the church teenagers a gratefulness for stable families. The Goths and other at risk teenagers often come from troubled homes - their parents fight, drink, or use drugs. They don't have time for their children, leaving them free to find a "family" on the street.
A.J. had been brought up in the church, thinking it was fun at first. But when he saw the youth group dividing up into cliques that didn't include him, it wasn't fun anymore. As more personal problems escalated at home, he began to rebel in his dress and started taking drugs. He gravitated to the Goths because they accepted people one the edge.
Greiner recognized A.J.'s leadership qualities and spiritual hunger the more they talked. A.J. realized the youth pastor really cared.
"My teachers, the church, regular kids didn't accept me, but Blayne did. He was there, no matter what, a cell phone call away," A.J. says. When he learned of the church's request to disband the parking lot ministry, he was angrier than most of the Goths. "The church is just jerking us around."In June 2000, the Goths met one last time in the church parking lot. With a parting hug, one youth said, "Pastor Greiner, I know we'll start up again."
The parking lot kids went back to hanging out on the street corners and convenience stores, but they missed the camaraderie of the larger group. Some kids returned to their old lifestyle of drugs and drinking.
Greiner tried to keep tabs on the Goths, stopping to talk when he'd see them around town. Several called him regularly. The youth pastor kept an encouraging remark from co-worker Sara Schelbrack in mind. "I think sometimes God stops the work to reconstruct it."
In September of 2000, Greiner resigned as youth pastor at Crossroads Foursquare Church to devote all his time to expanding the ministry of Youth Unlimited. God blessed the work with a large house in Monroe, Washington for free where the group could meet. Four months after their last meeting on church property, the parking lot kids greeted Greiner with cheers at their first meeting in Monroe. They were back.
Greiner and his staff had weekly meetings planned and an intensive mentoring program ready to plug them into if they wanted. Twenty-two youth registered for a ten-month program. Participants learn about God, character issues, life skills, and relationships.
A.J., now 19 years old and actively involved in Youth Unlimited has benefited greatly. He's made a commitment to Christ, is building up a painting business, plays the guitar, and hopes someday to be part of an outreach team himself. Though A.J. struggles financially trying to make it on his own and sometimes misses his former friends, he has no desire to go back to the old lifestyle.
"My old friends don't hate me for the decision I made [to follow Christ]," says A.J. "Though some do think I'm weird."
Other former Goths who became Christians and moved out of the area keep in touch with Greiner. He's happy to learn that many have found churches and their faith is getting even stronger.
This year Greiner plans to launch panel discussions between Goths and youth group members to help them understand each other better. "Dispelling misconceptions about Christianity helps get extreme-living teenagers one step closer to God and his truth," Greiner explains. One parking lot regular named Roy, who considers Greiner his pastor, is eager to participate. A number of local churches have expressed interest in the idea.
Greiner's been able to use some of the teenagers from the Crossroads church on his Youth Unlimited outreaches, a payoff from the church parking lot days. "It's easier to get those youth involved in city missions because they're not afraid anymore," he says. Greiner encourages Christian teenagers to interact with alternative teenagers at school, a place where he and other local pastors have volunteered to monitor lunch, giving them further access to teenagers.
This past February, final plans were approved by Gold Creek Community Church in Snohomish County to launch a new youth outreach program proposed by youth pastor Brian Muchmore. Greiner has been asked to lead it. Oh, yes. They'll be meeting in the parking lot.